• The Gender Security Project

Fighting on the Frontlines: Women in Myanmar

By Kirthi Jayakumar



Source: Facebook/Taiwan News (Link)


Women are on the frontlines of Myanmar’s protest movement against the generals of the Tatmadaw who ousted Aung San Suu Kyi and restored a patriarchal order that was used to oppress women for around fifty years. These women – of all ages and from all backgrounds - have mobilized and gathered every day to march, protest, and rally for their rights: braving brutal crackdowns in the process. Women and girls have been shot and killed by the security forces, but they aren’t backing down on any account.


The challenge ahead

The Tatmadaw continues to make patriarchal statements on how women must dress modestly. It has no women in its ranks, and its soldiers are known to have targeted ethnic minorities such as the Rohingya, with sexual violence. From 1962 to 2011, when Myanmar was under the control of the military junta, women were oppressed, marginalized, and excluded from positions of power and public life – be it in education and economic life, or in religious and cultural life. In a recent interview on the coup, women’s rights activist May Sabe Phyu told Open Democracy: “Women’s rights have never been part of the military agenda. They may pretend they care, but it’s all lies. In their view, the role of women is to preserve culture and religion.”

With the military in power, the backtracking on women’s rights is an inherent outcome. The marginal gains women had made in the decade after military rule toppled will also face major setbacks. Until the coup, the civilian government and women-led activist groups were in the process of creating a comprehensive national legislation to address violence against women. This law was to be known as the Prevention of Violence against Women Law, and is not likely to see the light of day if the military remains entrenched in power.


The Tatmadaw is known for its active campaigns of gender inequality and gender-based violence. Sexual violence was a carefully chosen tactic executed by the military to target women, to intimidate, terrorise, and punish a civilian population, and has been officially recognized by the UN Secretary General as “credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for patterns of rape or other forms of sexual violence.” Such instances of sexual violence have targeted girls and women, especially in areas where military bases and camps and militarized mining areas operate.


Women on the frontlines

Ever since the protests began, women began to mobilize beyond assembling for the rallies alone. There are reports of medical volunteers who patrolled the streets to tend to those who were wounded and killed by the security forces. The current wave began with a general strikes by factory workers, most of whom were women, a few days after the military coup.


Tradition dictates that the garments covering the lower half of the bodies of men and women should not be washed together because “the female spirit may contaminate the male spirit.” There is also a belief that walking beneath women’s clothing is bad luck. Subverting both traditional stereotypes, women began putting up clothesline after clothesline filled with their htameins, or sarongs, and longyis or wraparound skirts, to protect their protest zones. Beautifully turning a stereotypical superstition on its head, these women found a powerful way to wall their protest zones knowing that men would not walk under or near these cloths. Some women have also pinned images of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief who orchestrated this military coup, to their htameins and longyis. In Yangon, the clotheslines serve as a barricade against the military. Women poured out onto the streets with their underwear, longyis, and htameins and longyis on International Women's Day. The women aim to slow down the police and the military. Some women also used their clothing as flags.


In Myitkyina, nuns began to use prayer to protest. They begged the military not to shoot. They kneeled before the police and prayed. Sister Ann Rose Nu Twang, one of the nuns on ground, went on her knees and spread her hands wide, asking the military not to shoot or torture the children, but to shoot and kill her instead. They begged the military not to shoot. They kneeled before the police and prayed. However, the violence continued unabashed - as only moments later, the police began firing into the crowd of protesters behind her.


Han Lay, Miss Grand Myanmar, a young woman contesting in the Miss Grand International 2020 (a beauty pageant) in Thailand, has also used her social capital and international stage to draw attention to the cause: a rare form of protest where she used her two minutes under the spotlight to speak about the events underway in Myanmar.


Uncertain futures

While the clarion call at the moment is loud and clear, that the military rule cannot continue and that Aung San Suu Kyi’s rule should be restored, the walls to scale seem both high and representative of a longer journey ahead. Even as the international community stands steadfast in support of women on the frontlines and their call for Suu Kyi’s restoration as the ruler, it is vital not to allow public memory of the violence and genocide of the Rohingya community that has continued for years now, even under Suu Kyi’s rule.


Dismantling structural and systemic violence and transitional justice are vital to restoring sustainable peace in Myanmar. With the military's declaration of a year-long state of emergency, and the rampancy of violence, the road ahead looks like a tough path to march on. And yet, Myanmar's women fight hard for the future they deserve: one of peace.

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